A cyclists guide to parenting – Part 1

The short answer is yes, the long answer is that you need to adapt to get the best of both worlds.

Will becoming a parent ( Mum / Dad ) affect my cycling?

How tired do you have to be not to notice the big shiny (literally) 700 lumen light has fallen off your handlebars? Where’s my brand new gilet? I distinctly remember putting it in my pocket this morning. Both of them lost on the 10 mile cycling commute to work that’s been keeping me sane through the first few months of parenting. It’s been an expensive morning replacing them, but lack of sleep can be brutal and right now I’m too tired to care.

When we were thinking about having a child our thought process went something like this: “We’ve got loads of energy, you’ve just run a couple of marathons, and I can cycle hundreds of miles! We’ve got stamina, we’ll find parenting easy! How hard can it be?” 

Obviously the long answer to this depends on many factors, like how much help you have (or pay for), how easy/difficult your child wants to be about sleeping or if you have twins/triplets etc. The short answer is: Surprisingly hard, even for the fit and healthy. What we really want to know however is how will all this affect our passions in life, like cycling and is there anything we can do to lessen the impact on our lives?

I’ll start by saying that we have absolutely no help and absolutely no babysitting whatsoever. So finding time to ride my bike and stay fit has required some creative thinking, hopefully your situation will be less extreme. In this post I’ll share some of my top tips to help maintain a healthy work/baby/life balance; basically the post I wish I’d read before I became a Dad, so I could prepare a few things first.

Is it hard?

It’s not like riding 200 miles (300km) hard, no. It’s more like riding 40 miles a day, every day, no matter what the weather, how tired you are, what the weather is like or if you’re ill. You just have to do it, every day, all day. Sure 40 miles won’t take all day and you’ll enjoy it most days, but what if you can’t leave your bike alone for even a few seconds? It needs to be in the bathroom as you shower, kitchen as you cook and bedroom as you sleep. Then you’ll be woken a few times in the night by noises and find you have to fix yet another puncture, the 8th one today. That’s what it’s like. Not hard, just relentless. Fun yes, rewarding yes, but hard too. 

It’s also about a loss of yourself, your time, your identity. Alastair Humphreys a professional adventurer (round the world cyclist, pioneer of “Micro Adventures” and so much more) in an interview with ITV’s Point of View TV series makes the following excellent points: “I found becoming a parent, comfortably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Like a lot of dads, I think I phenomenally underestimated what was about to hit me. The mistake I made was rather than adapting like superman, emerging from a phonebox as a “New Dad” and just pouring myself into that adventure, I just spent a lot of time really regretting that I couldn’t do both things. 

The journeys I did, the adventures and travels that felt such an integral part of my self-confidence and self-respect that when that all went, because I was at home being a dad, I just crumbled really.”

“When I try and sacrifice every single aspect of my own adventurous life in order to be with my family, I get frustrated and angry and resentful. I’m quite weird. Sunday night, instead of having a nice, warm bed to sleep in, I voluntarily choose to sleep in the woods up the road. It is selfish to do that, but it’s also important. I come back to the family refreshed and invigorated and better able to be a present and good dad.” I fully agree with Alastair, you have to keep a little bit of your identity and passions so you can show up your best for your family. There’s nothing like coming home full of endorphins after an early morning ride, ready to be the best parent you can be for the rest of the day.

As a cyclist, whether you cycle for adventure or fitness you will feel a sense of frustration as you fight for the aspects of your old life that you love in the time pressures of your new life as a parent. Whether it’s not wanting to let go of your exceptional fitness even a little for the benefit of your new family, or whether you start to wonder who you are, what is your identity now you can’t just cycle across a continent? or spend 8 hours just rolling through the hills getting some long steady miles in your legs.

Am I being selfish? Dealing with Dad/Mum guilt.

Keeping fit and healthy is not selfish, so try not to feel guilty about needing a little time for you. When your child or even grandchildren are older and you’re still fit and mobile enough to run, jump, ride bikes, kick a ball and all that stuff your whole family will be thankful that you prioritised your health and fitness. That’s a much better scenario than the health problems associated with a sedentary lifestyle. So keep it up! You’ll also have more patience and better quality time with your child if you can balance your needs with theirs. 

Time

Parenting comes down to managing time, as in when you’re a parent you no longer have any. Seriously that’s the number one issue. You’re going to be very short on time at first, so concentrate on getting the basics right like sleeping as much as you can, keep nutrition good even when you’re too tired, and get some headspace when you need it. Get the basics sorted so you’re not making life harder than it needs to be, and you’ll be ready to hit the ground running as things start to ease up a little when a routine is established and your child becomes a little more independent. Remember it takes a lot less time to maintain fitness than it does to build it, and maintaining most of your existing fitness is a realistic goal in the first year. It is probably not the time to train for your first ironman.

Cycling takes time, lots of it, and you’re going to struggle to find it. Putting pressure on yourself to get fitter in half the time you used to have is no fun. Riding flatout suffering all the time because you’re short on time, making every ride about suffering at maximum effort, I found that it took the enjoyment out of it, and more often than not I didn’t want to ride as much as I could have. I didn’t take up cycling to have a horrible time, I loved the freedom, the adventure and the speed. Concentrate on the enjoyment and let the suffering take a back seat for a bit, just get out when you can and relax a little for your own sake.

I found it helped to really focus on just the important stuff. A wise man once said “If you can prioritise just three things in your life then you will be able to do them all well”. Unfortunately one of them is going to need to be work to pay the bills, and the other your new family life. So if you have lots of hobbies (I haven’t surfed since becoming a father) now is the time to focus on just one or accept a drop in your level/fitness over a couple. Time is a finite resource, so make that choice and accept the resulting consequences.

Here are my top tips for keeping cycling though the first couple of years of parenthood:

Accept Solitude

Your tight schedule might mean that you need to cycle alone more than you did before. No waiting around, just out the door and getting time for yourself and your passion. Nobody to cancel on either should you find your lycra covered in milky vomit or yellow projectile poop, suddenly deciding that maybe it’s not your day for cycling after all.

Cycling commute

Cycling is not just a sport, it’s also a form of transport so use it to actually save time! My commute takes 30 mins in a car each way in typical traffic, cycling it takes 36mins one way and 30 another no matter what the traffic. Taking into account an extra shower and getting changed means that I get over 100 miles of cycling done per week for only an extra hour and a half a week. That’s 5 and a half hours of cycling, for only an hour and a half extra time. Makes sense right? If you are not using your bike as actual transport then you’re wasting everyone’s time.

Time for a life reset – Remove the time wasting habits

We’ve all picked up plenty of bad habits over the years, that were not a problem when you had lots of spare time. Scrolling through the endless social media news feeds or just consuming news and checking email constantly. The endless scroll that starts innocently but ends up costing you 2-6 hours a day. Social media is intentionally addictive (look it up, watch the Social Dilemma). Remove social media from your phone, only pick up your phone when you can say out loud what you’re about to do with it. “I need to message my Mum” etc. If you use your phone intentionally as a camera, GPS and communicate with just your key relationships (not the 500 people you once met and haven’t spoken to in years). Then under an hour a day is a realistic usage target. Claim back hours of your life (for cycling!) by not being a useless screen zombie anymore. The same applies to TV, only turn it on for specific programs, not to just flick through.

If you’re really struggling with letting go of social media, just ask yourself how social media is making you feel when you see it. If you’re stuck at home under a sleeping baby and you see friends posting epic rides and highlights from their lives whilst you’re only commuting to work and back, would you not feel a bit crap, like you’re missing out? Or angry that everyone else’s highlights look like they’re not struggling like you are?

“Hey Instagram I like cycling”

“Here are some photos of people (influencers) who look like they’re way better at cycling than you on much better bikes, having a great time in epic locations with a professional photographer and full photo editing suite to make everything look way better than real life”

“Thanks for the “inspiration” Instagram you’ve made me feel inferior and frustrated with my life, I can’t compete with that, I think I’ll eat these biscuits and quit cycling now.” 

Plan for it

Eventually your child will be sleeping by 7pm and you’ll have a few hours before you collapse with exhaustion into bed too. If riding the turbo trainer or rollers in the evening sounds appealing to you (it’s not my thing – I’ve built a really steep rock climbing wall/cave in my garage for evening exercise. All within signal range of the baby monitor), then set your space up now whilst you have time. Clear it out, make it a nice place to be so you actually use it. Start calling it “The Performance Centre” instead of the garage, clear out the hoarded junk, buy a fan/radiator, paint it, hang up your signed photo of Jens Voigt, just kit it out to your wildest dreams so you actually want to spend time in it and use it.

Similarly if you want to blast out on real roads, but realistically know you’ll regularly only have blocks of between 1 and 2 hours, actually plot some routes that only take that time. Plot loads of them riding straight from your door and take some pleasure in finally getting to ride them, exploring new directions and local hills. Plot them now whilst you have the time and reap the benefits later. On road, off road, back roads, parks, laps, out and back. Just bang them out and explore from your door.

Book in the time: If you’re having one of those weekends where you’re hoping to pop out at some time but you’re waiting for a quiet time to drop the “I’m just going to go for a ride” bombshell on your unsuspecting partner, that moment probably won’t crop up. Communicate, book it in advance, so plans can be made and compromises sought. Keep everybody happy so your cycling time works and does not add friction to your home situation. An extreme version of this is to have a rotor for the week, with yours and your partner’s free time scheduled in, so everyone knows that you get 7-9 am every Saturday to ride, and they get their time too. 

Cross training

Running takes less time than cycling. It might not be exactly the same muscles, but it will keep you generally fit and healthy (increases bone density too for long term health) and gives you the headspace and endorphins. I also found it refreshing to have no ego in the game. I’m not much of a runner and have no real running goals. I’m not looking to run a marathon any time soon, I just want to run along the river for half an hour because I’m short on time, and that is quite refreshing. Sure you will soon set new personal bests if you’ve not run much before, which is encouraging, but not key to my happiness as I don’t identify as a runner, I just run sometimes and I’m happy to keep it that way. So give it a try, it might keep you sane when 20 or 30 minutes and a quick shower are all you can manage.

Involve the whole family

Ok so actually getting the kid on your bike will not be until a warm sunny day (you don’t want them to hate it, there is a lot of pressure on their first experience going well) around 9 months to 1 year old – more on that in a following post. However there are other things you can do together that give your legs a good workout. I found that mainly commuting for my cycling left me wanting more adventure and beautiful landscapes, so hiking became our source of this. Hiking the hills of the Peak District with a toddler and a picnic strapped to me gets increasingly demanding as the child gets heavier. Walking slowly uphill in a controlled manner with extra weight gives your legs and hip flexors some serious burn. A brutal leg day for the masochist, with epic views and nature for all the family. Hiking needs some kit, here are my recommendations (affiliate links – but they really are the ones we use and recommend):

For actual babies we found the Ergobaby Onmi 360 Cool Air carrier to be the best soft carrier (we tried lots), If you want a soft carrier this is the one to get.

For babies 6 months and up we did some serious off roading in a push chair that we still use with our toddler (I called it baby trials – crossing bogs, rivers, snow and rocks without waking the sleeping baby) in the Out n About Nipper Sport – also useful for going for that half an hour run when you’re left holding the baby.

For proper hiking and bigger babies (around 6 months upwards) we use the Osprey back mounted carrier (we still use it with our heavy toddler). We found that we used the sun shield and rain cover to keep out the cold wind most of the time so would highly recommend these features. This carrier places the weight more on your hips, unlike the soft carriers – which put the weight into your shoulders, so became our go to carrier as our daughter got bigger.

Whether hiking up cliffs or over hills, the extra weight of a child on your back is a brutal leg day when going up. Embrace the adventure and leg workout as your child gets heavier.

Dancing in the kitchen happens everyday in my house. Sir Chris Hoy once said “If I could recommend one exercise to improve your cycling it would be squats”. A much more accessible version of this as a parent, is a kind of half squat, dancing, bobbing up and down and kind of side to side, carrying the increasing weight of a child whilst dancing to music in the kitchen. As they get more robust you can jump around the kitchen. 15 minutes of this and you’ll feel the burn whilst spending quality time at home. Get creative, get bonding with your child and keep your legs strong, win win.

Keep it together

When things get tough (we definitely said “Is it supposed to be this hard?” more than a few times (almost everyday) in the first year) it can be easy to give up on the foundations of a healthy lifestyle like eating healthy food, exercising regularly, and obviously sleeping well. When you don’t have time to exercise as much as you used to and your sleep is disrupted all you have left to underpin your health is good healthy food, so try and make this a focus when things are tough. 

Eventually things become fun, and eventually you’ll be having amazing moments that make your heart sing, and most of those have come from me cycling with my daughter:

“Daddy wattbomb!, faster faster! Tunnel ECHO!!! Yellow sky sunset, dancing birds murmurations, bump bumps, zig zagging, puddle splash splash!!!” to quote a typical evening ride with her as we approach 2 years old. It’s also pretty cool to watch her doing wheelies on her balance bike. 

Good times are ahead, hang in there, it is hard but it does get easier and a lot more fun.

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